British cultural heritage is in good hands with pianist Jonathan Gee. His resumé includes Northern Star People’s View From The Pocket, which was “inspired by the metaphysical properties of the snooker ball” and elicited a waggish response from Ronnie O’Sullivan in the Guardian. The Rocket may have scratched his head wondering how it is that jazz musicians respond faster to the other player’s notes than he himself builds a five-minute maximum break with breakneck speed.
On top of that, Gee’s band Ohisashiburi, which translates as “long time no see”, tackled classic English pop music on Reimagining The Beatles, reviewed in JJ in April. It’s a striking addition to the long thread of jazzified Beatles in the history of jazz and one of few serious Fab Four undertakings on the contemporary scene. Gee’s partner in the Ohisashiburi project, the Italian alto saxophonist Gaetano Partipilo, is a like-minded modern jazz musician with a fascination for popular culture, evidenced by, among others, his album Besides: Songs From The Sixties.
However, while The Beatles are in the bones of Gee, Englishman born in Israel but raised in the UK from three months of age and a dedicated rock singer and guitarist in his teenage years, their music was uncharted territory for Partipilo. Gee: “Bassist Joseph Lepore from New York is a mutual friend of ours and thought we should work together. Gaetano and I worked with various rhythm sections in the UK in early 2018. Soon after, Gaetano fixed some gigs with Giuseppe and Fabio in Italy. We threw around ideas and thought about juxtaposing The Beatles and Duke Ellington. Then somehow it became The Beatles besides our own compositions because it felt like the natural space.” Partipilo: “We started to play standards, some originals and maybe only one Beatles song re-elaborated by Jonathan. Then it became two, three Beatles songs . . . until we asked ourselves ‘Shouldn’t we do a Beatles project?’ I was very curious because I had never played Beatles tunes in my life!”
In the history of jazzified Beatles, there are dozens of records in the soul-jazz vein, from Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Ramsey Lewis, Cal Tjader, George Benson to the contemporary Rubber Soul Quartet. On the other hand, artists have taken the psychedelic side of The Beatles to the extreme, like Steve Marcus in the late 1960s and Shabaka Hutchings and Mary Halverson in the post-modern era. Ohisashiburi has more or less found a spot in the middle of these opposites. Its pays thoughtful homage to Lennon & McCartney’s melodies and rearranges them as a blueprint for its own brand of improvisational flair. The playful and smart arrangements are divided between Gee and drummer Fabio Accardi. A comparison with The Bad Plus, which famously integrated iconic rock tunes in their book, isn’t far off the mark. Gee: “That sounds like a good analysis. Do I consider our take on the Beatles as a springboard for others? We definitely have our own Beatles space and respond to each other as improvisers. But I’m more concerned with our audience. We’re delighted to share it with our listeners and hope they will value it.
‘Both Michelle and Here, There And Everywhere have chorus sections that function a bit like the B-sections of standards. And the melody of Michelle almost has some Thelonious Monk about it’
“There are a lot of great jazz versions of The Beatles. The Jaco Pastorius version of Blackbird with Toots Thielemans is seared in my consciousness. I have played that song in many bands. I have also played Here, There And Everywhere on many occasions. And I heard Bob Berg play Michelle and that put that song in my mind. Both Michelle and Here, There And Everywhere have chorus sections that function a bit like the B-sections of standards. And the melody of Michelle almost has some Thelonious Monk about it.”
Appropriate. Gee has spent a good deal of his life incorporating some of the aspects of Monk’s aesthetic, worked to his advantage in a string of notable trio records. While in contrast with angular and spacious Monk the elegant and dense note-clusters of the 62-year old pianist tumble over each other like chicks in a battery cage, he shares with The High Priest an affinity for odd intervals. His style is plenty spunky as well, likely the result of his considerable experience of playing with the elders. Gee cooperated with such diverse figureheads as Bobby Wellins and Pharoah Sanders. Gee: “Well, firstly, everybody I play with is transformational for me because everybody has something unique to offer. But to give you a few examples: drummer Clifford Jarvis lived near me for many years. Playing with him was always transformational because he set up how it felt in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he was playing with Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean and Monk. Joe Lovano lifted my trio up in a big energy. I think that we spent the next five years trying to understand that experience. I have met many inspirational musicians in London like Django Bates and South African exiles as Dudu Pukwana. David Murray showed me the meaning of freedom. Pharaoh Sanders had a special energy. Drummers Winston Clifford and Nasheet Waits have shown me incredible drum chair possibilities in my music. Nowadays, Fabio Accardi plays that role exceptionally in Ohisashiburi.”
Partipilo, who garnered attention in cooperation with Dave Liebman and Jason Moran, chimes in: “Apart from collaborating with great musicians, my little dream is to bring my music to the people. I’m a prolific composer and sometimes it’s difficult to perform your compositions with your own band. Usually, if you want to play in good venues, you need to be a sideman of a famous musician. No mistaking, those experiences are very inspiring. But my hope is to break through this fixed pattern and play my own music, here, there and everywhere!”
Partipilo pun intended. Ohisashiburi has acquired a taste for it and will indulge in Beatles repertory in the future. Partipilo: “For sure. Playing The Beatles stimulates your ideas about form and harmony. Their songs seem simple but sometimes are very complex. For example, a song like Eleanor Rigby has a very strange form and is very interesting for a jazz musician. We will try to cook up a good version for our next record. All we have to do is stay together. Things will happen if we play together. I hope it will be soon.” Gee: “We will also be delving further into Japan. After all, our band name found its origin in Japan. Our bassist Giuseppe Bassi introduced us to the funding body Motono Kai. They became fans and to our delight suggested the name Ohisahiburi. Furthermore, the front cover shows a photo of Yoshie Nishikawa. Japan is another fascination of ours.”